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|Tuesday, February 17, 2004|
Jenny Tonge In The Middle East
After her controversial comments that resulted in her sacking from the Lib Dem front bench. We sent Jenny Tonge to visit the Middle East to meet both sides in the long-running dispute.
"If I had to live in that situation - and I say that advisedly - I might just consider becoming one myself":
Jenny Tonge MP
** READ JENNY TONGE'S WEBCHAT**
Jenny Tonge's Diary:
I went to Israel and Palestine at the invitation of the Today Programme on Radio 4, who had challenged me to meet families and victims of suicide bombers.
My remarks last month, expressing empathy with suicide bombers had been misinterpreted by the tabloids as meaning sympathy and approval.
It was therefore, with some trepidation that we travelled through Jerusalem to the checkpoint out to Bethlehem and the occupied territories.
The morning was cold and wet and added to the gloom of Palestine. I would challenge anyone to spend a few days in the OccupiedTerritories and see the contrasts between modern Israel and its affluent citizens and the third world of Palestine.
The blame lies with both sides – I know that – but the ordinary Palestinian has to live in this third world and I suspect many Israelis never go there.
Israeli citizens are treated with courtesy and respect, Palestinians are humiliated at very opportunity.
Living conditions in the guarded illegal settlements encircling Bethlehem include every amenity, plentiful water and private swimming pools, but in Bethlehem they have clean water once a week, via Israel and two public swimming pools in the whole town.
In Jerusalem I visited the finest hospitals I have ever been in, better than any London teaching hospital. The facilities are superb. On the day we visited the world’s first computerised hip replacement was taking place. In Bethlehem, the local hospital could diagnose but had a chronic shortage of drugs for all conditions and very poor facilities, reminiscent of small local hospitals in the UK when I was a student.
In Israel, the armed forces have F16 fighter planes, helicopter gun-ships, tanks, even nuclear weapons. This was pointed out to me by a civil society group in Bethlehem, when I asked why they used suicide bombers. “Tell the USA to give us the arms that Israel has and we will stop using them,” was the response.
Someone has reminded me that Samson was the first suicide bomber and as we talked at our first meeting in Bethlehem the room shook and the earth roared – an earthquake, the first in ten years, had struck, 5.6 on the Richter scale, causing us to run out of the building and wait.
I suggested the Shepherds’ Fields for the rest of the meeting, but the intrepid BBC staff insisted on staying indoors to get “quality” recordings. We were lucky. There was no more wrath from God that day.
We met up with some Al Aksa terrorists after lurking guiltily in Manger Square waiting for them to arrive.
We were taken to a safe Christian house, where two bearded, shaded, skull-capped men, one with a black Kalashnikov, sat on a sofa near a huge wall hanging of Jesus the Good Shepherd. “This is the military wing of Fatah,” someone remarked. That at least was obvious.
They had heard about my remarks and were pleased that I understood the reasons why they were terrorists, even “proud” of me. This was spine-chilling. More re-assuring however, was the statement that they now accepted that Israel had a right to exist and their campaign would stop when Israel withdrew to its 1967 borders, removed settlements and returned Jerusalem to the Palestinians. A different message from the one we have been used to.
We visited the family of a suicide bomber.
The stories of indoctrination of little children right through their schooldays didn’t seem to apply here. The brothers of Mohamed showed no signs of this and his mother claimed she had no idea her son was planning this until the Al Aksa Brigade delivered his “memorial” picture taken before the mission.
It is certainly true that suicide bombers are regarded as national heroes here, like footballers in the UK almost, but what else do they have? Suicide bombers are born out of despair and the desire to resist occupation, laced with religious belief. Civilian targets are chosen because there is simply no way of getting at military targets.
We visit the spot where the Angel Gabriel “came down” to the shepherds in their fields and drive back to Jerusalem as a rainbow forms over the golden city – surely one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The day in Israel starts somewhat fearfully. Whilst we were in the West Bank yesterday 12 Palestinians were killed in Gaza by Israeli soldiers and in this tit-for-tat situation that usually means an attack on Israel in the near future.
The message from doctors, relatives of victims of suicide bombers, self-help groups in Jerusalem is always the same.
They are understandably afraid, but tell of the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, the squandering of aid, the indoctrination of little children, the “72 virgins”, the love of Jewish people for their fellow man, the lack of hatred, the rejection of the offer at Camp David, the necessity of the security wall, the rights of the settlers to their land, the holocaust, the Promised Land.
No one here can even try to understand the other point of view, nor will they accept the destruction of so much infrastructure in Palestine, or the over-reaction of the Israeli military.
Some of the rantings have truth in them, but it is all so negative, until we meet one single mother, late in the day. Her 15 year old daughter had been killed in the local supermarket by an 18 year old girl suicide bomber.
She was, of course, grief-stricken, but had decided to contact the bomber’s family, only to find they were “proud” of their daughter.
She had then received a letter from a Palestinian mother expressing her condolences and asking for a meeting. Her young, civilian son had been killed by an Israeli soldier. They were going to meet.
I left this woman feeling that there was the fist sign of reconciliation we know there are many such people in Israel and Palestine, fed up with the stupidity of their leaderships.
The situation is far worse than when I visited last July. Our party is calling for a suspension of the preferred trade agreement between the EU and Israel.
Someone has to move first. I hope it’s not too late.
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